Fate, Luck, Kismet?
Lawrence’s daughter Dawn was my point-of-contact when I took on his case in September 2017. Dawn uploaded her father’s data to the genealogy website Family Tree DNA, where I was a volunteer administrator for a region-specific project. The project involved studying the ancestral lines of participants whose families were from a small part of Austria-Hungary known as Burgenland.
Several participants appeared as matches to Lawrence’s genetic profile. Although the algorithm used by Family Tree DNA to identify related individuals did not find any of Lawrence’s close relatives within the group, it did find several potential distant matches (4th to 6th cousins). More importantly, the unique DNA Lawrence shared with people from this specific region indicated that he also had at least one parent whose family line traced back to Burgenland.
The project’s founder reached out to Dawn and asked if she would allow me to try to solve her father’s mystery. I had just successfully assisted another adoptee in the group and was looking for a challenge. Dawn agreed.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
One of the first emails from Dawn to me, dated September 2nd, 2017:
I am so glad you like a challenge! The adoption specialist looked in every directory and every document she could find … [She] checked all the records from November 1936–January of 1937. She said that DNA was the only way we would ever know anything …
The forged birth certificate shows my adoptive grandparents as the biological parents and as references, the school and church my Dad attended … By the way, we all loved my adoptive grandparents and never thought of them as anything other than parents/grandparents.
That being said, it has been a life long hope for my Dad that he know anything he can about his biological family. It has been a journey!
It was Dawn’s continued enthusiasm and the photos she sent of Lawrence that motivated me to keep searching. Even when I hit plenty of the proverbial brick walls, Dawn’s devotion convinced me that Lawrence, the grandfatherly figure with such kindness in his eyes, deserved an answer.
Eventually, I figured out that Lawrence’s father was born in Stegersbach, Austria (located in the Güssing district of Burgenland), and Lawrence’s mother was a first-generation American, born in Milwaukee. Her parents, German-speaking, but ethnically Polish, had emigrated to the U.S. around 1910.
I plan to write a separate article explaining the process I used to identify Lawrence’s parents, but for now, I’ll try to briefly explain why it was so difficult to find them.
All four of his grandparents were born in Europe.
Not many of Lawrence’s maternal-side ancestors emigrated to America and those who did had few children. I learned that Lawrence has no living 1st cousins and he has few 2nd cousins. The pool of possible relatives on his mother’s side is unusually small.
On his paternal side, however, Lawrence has hundreds of DNA matches who are possible 4th and 5th cousins. Thanks to mass-emigration from Burgenland to the U.S. in the early 1900s, the number of distant relatives on Lawrence’s father’s side is unusually large. Though numerous distant matches can point to a village of ancestral origin, they are not terribly useful for identifying a particular person.
Since genetic testing isn’t nearly as popular in most of Europe as it is in the U.S., having foreign-born parents or grandparents can result in very few close DNA matches. Identifying Lawrence’s parents was time-consuming, but confirming my findings took even longer. Due to the very delicate nature of contacting close relatives and requesting DNA samples for comparison, it took about eight months to have definitive answers.
On January 28th, 2018, DNA testing verified a biological half-sister for Lawrence, and in the process, his mother was identified.
On May 21st, 2018, another half-sister was verified via DNA testing. Her results proved the identity of Lawrence’s father.
On August 4th, I finally met Lawrence in person.
That same day, I watched as Lawrence hugged each of his two biological half-sisters.
I cried a little bit.
Lawrence and his family had arranged a very unconventional family reunion at one of Milwaukee’s historic German restaurants. Both half-sisters attended, along with 2nd and 3rd cousins, for a very long lunch. They shared photographs, stories, and strudel. I tagged along, awarded this rare opportunity to watch an 81-year old adoptee finally meet his biological relatives. Seventeen people in all gathered to acknowledge and accept Lawrence as a member of their respective families.
We may never know what series of events brought Lawrence’s parents together, but I want to offer a sincere thank you to both half-sisters for opening up and accepting him and his family into their lives, regardless of the circumstances surrounding his birth.
If These Walls Could Talk
A few hours after the reunion, Lawrence, Sylvia, Dawn, Russell, and I were on our aforementioned driving tour of Lawrence’s childhood landmarks. Most notably, we stopped at the Humboldt building. On the city’s register of historic places, this structure, intended to be used as a pharmacy, was designed by local architect Leo Gurda and was built in 1913. We also believe it is the the place where Lawrence was born. Currently, it is an apartment building. No evidence of Dr. Trump, Henry, or Chester remains.
“The girls would go in the side door, and up to the second story, above the Pharmacy,” Lawrence explained. “At the top of the stairs, Dr. Trump’s office was on the left side and an apartment was on the right side.”
I took a few photos as Lawrence commented on how different the exterior looked. We all walked toward the side of the building along Meinecke, the quieter of the two streets. Though I had just met Lawrence a few hours ago, I learned quickly he was not the type to mince words.
“They did abortions up there. There’s no question about it.”
“How do you know?”
“I learned about it after we started searching for my [biological] mother and father. A woman I worked with knew the whole story of the neighborhood. We went to the houses and asked questions.”
“And that’s how you found out?”
“Well, we went to a place she told us about … She said [the woman who lived there] had also run a house for unwed mothers and had performed abortions. We found her and she let us in … She told us about Dr. Trump and the abortions that were being done up on the second floor in his office.”
Lawrence paused for a moment, then added a final detail.
“But other mothers would transfer if they wanted to keep their babies. I guess they went to another maternity home.”
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